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Sharing the insights I discover as I explore and experience the mystery that is our reality. Join me in my journey and share yours.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Futility of Knowing Oneself: Thomas Merton

I came across an incredibly thought-provoking journal entry written by Thomas Merton in his book, Run to the Mountain. I was contemplating on which set of collected thoughts from him I would include in a blog entry when I became completely overwhelmed-he just has way too much to share in this entry to break it down to just a couple of sentences.  His thoughts are just way too amazing not to share in their entirety so I will share with everyone just about the whole passage, with just a few parts that don't pertain too much to its relevance, taken out. Please enjoy, and, I would love and appreciate any thoughts you might have after reading this passage on the subject of the futility of knowing oneself.


Note: Anything in bold is an emphasis added by me.

December 8. Feast of the Immaculate Conception

I wish nobody had ever told me it was a good thing to attempt to know myself. ...I read Jung and tried to figure out what psychological type I was, and figured I was an "extroverted sensation type," whatever that is. I was certainly afraid of being an introvert. That is because introversion is a sin for materialists, and what is more it is used conversationally almost as if it were synonymous with "perversion."

I read some Virgina Woolf novel and thought I was one of the characters. I thought I was like George Gissing as he is described in Well's autobiography. (What a ridiculous thing it is to take oneself so seriously!)

But it is completely embarrassing to come upon such examples of vanity and pride. It is more pitiful to think how miserable and ignorant I continued to be while I was so unhappily engaged in the futile business of trying, in a reasonable and humanistic manner, to know myself. What floundering around! It was a wonder I remembered my own name! It was a greater wonder I remembered the names and faces of people around me.

Knowing myself-it was really a sort of desperate substitute for confession and penance. That was why it was so silly and so lamentably useless. For the only valid kind of self-knowledge is the amount needed for a good examination of conscience to make a good confession. But both of these are something God will give us if we pray humbly to Him for grace and love, and the important thing is God's love, not ourselves and what is in us. We don't want to know what is in ourselves in order to dwell upon it, treasure it, meditate upon it unless it is not of ourselves but of God. So everything that is of our own worldly desire and fear must be cast out so that we can see God within us and everywhere outside of us too. What we want to know is not ourselves but God.

"Know thyself"-it was proposed that if a man knew himself, he could manage himself so as to do just as much as he was capable of doing, etc. and be at peace just occupied enough to avoid boredom, not so busy as to get tired or flustered or excited-amused enough to be pleasantly stimulated, not enough to be choked and saturated. What a stupid idea, but above all, what a crazy idea to think it can be reached! It is a reflection of the peace and blessedness we all long for, however. That peace is not in knowing ourselves but in knowing God. But we must know ourselves, too: we must know this much: that we are not God. We already know we are unhappy: the amount of self-knowledge we need is simply what will help us find out the reasons for our unhappiness: that is what ways we have loved silly and inferior and imperfect things and preferred them before God.

Saint Theresa of Avila-The Interior Castle-says we must not dwell on self-knowledge alone, but pass on from it at once and go seeking God's love above everything, because every other desire is a traitor and every other knowledge is vain without God.

Without the love of God, or the explicit desire for Him, self-knowledge is futile and makes one very miserable, because one seeks this way to get out of a blind alley-and never does. We only think we want to know ourselves, but we really want to know God.

I was so preoccupied with self-knowledge that I didn't know anything about anybody else's feelings.

...All the bad confessions we make and all the half-hearted prayers and all the complicated stupid worries we get into with vile things coming into our minds, as if it wasn't our own fault and something to be taken with humility and not with anger and elaborate plans...all that is itself a way to take us away from praying and loving God and to make us think about hating filth instead. So these ideas will come, and why shouldn't they, good heavens, after the things I have done for so long my head is full of crap! Half the images and most of the language that occurs to me is scatological, because I have been in all that up to the neck, wallowing about rather weakly, claiming to know myself.

So if all that, as it must, presents itself to me and scares and torments me sometimes, then I must above all things avoid playing the "know myself" game, because if I do it will surely mean losing what little I can find of a path to God. 

People who "know themselves" are always the ones who can't see the beam in their own eye. In getting to "know themselves" they have studied their own faults so closely and with such loving care that they see them in everybody around them even if they are not there.


Heavenly Father,

May we always seek to know you above knowing ourselves. May we find our identity in you and may you reveal to our hearts and minds the truths and insights we seek for and may you bless us with the deep sense of your presence as we lay down our attachments and egos at the foot of your throne and give you all of our attention, all of our devotion and all of our love.

Thank you for your great mercy, everlasting faithfulness and love. We give you all honor, glory and praise.

In Jesus' precious name,


  1. The only way one can know oneself is through having their mind renewed by the Word of God. Once we accept the Lord Jesus into our life we are a new creation . The Word then will tell us who we really are in Christ. It is a daily process of faith and belief in what God declares. We are righteous, holy and complete in Him. He has perfected us in our spirit already, we just need to get our soul inline with what He says we are! That takes faith! But Thank God He gives us the faith to move forward in it!

  2. Ed what abeautiful way of putting it. I think the most difficult part is to align your soul with what God has in store for us. We are such stubborn creatures, yet He still loves us!

    Thank you for sharing!

  3. Wow Ed...I agree with Tink...that was a beautiful way of describing things! That is so true...Thank God for making us all new creations in Him! And may we be given the strength to let go of the things of this world and become more and more like Jesus as we find our identity in him. Thank you so much for your comment. It is so encouraging to hear words of truth proclaimed by other brothers and sisters :)

    Thank you too Tink..you are right..we are stubborn! I think the stubborness that is so prevelant in human nature blinds us in so many ways..thank God for loving us so much as to take the time to humble us :)

    ~Blessings to you both.

  4. Is it not written to and for us that we should "Be still and KNOW that I am God"?

    Now this is scripture and instruction from God clearly telling us to stop struggling with things that don't matter and KNOW HIM AS GOD. He did not say Be still and know thyself. He already knew that doing that will lead to frustration. God is a Spirit and we are made in his image, so learning about who we are outside of God leads to nothing but frustration. We as humans are just like flowers that eventually fade away with time, but as God's created spiritual beings, we are eternal. So it behooves us to let go of these worldly things and focus on the love of the loving creator. In the book of Ecclesiastes, King Solomom said that with much knowledge comes much sorrow. What an awesome truth. Apostle Paul puts it awesomely when he said. "It is in HIM I move, It's in HIM I live, it's in HIM I have my being. He has learnt to stop "knowing himself" and knowing God. May God open the eyes of our understanding.

  5. Our paths or knowing who we are are tested on a daily basis. We are faced with situations over and over until we learn the lesson. The divine does not set us up for failure but sees if we are ready to surrender with honesty.
    Our journeys are tested to see if faith exist within us. If we cannot have faith within our self or for others how can we have faith for the divine. Thus the journey of knowing who we are begins.

  6. Thank you so much Joshua for your reflections filled with truth and light! :) The "stop struggling with things that don't matter and know HIm as God"...reminds me of something I once read in Brother Lawrence's book.."That we should establish ourselves in a sense of God's presence by continually conversing with Him. That it was a shameful thing to quit His conversation to think of trifles and fooleries."

    You are so right..God is eternal, infinite and the creator of all things physical and spiritual. What an amazing God who created us and welcomes us as His children and gives us the opportunity to know HIm. Praise God :)
    Thank you for your thoughtful comment :)
    ~many blessings.

  7. YogaSavy..thank you so much for your comment :)
    I agree when you say, "Our journeys are tested to see if faith exist within us."

    As to your question, :Our journeys are tested to see if faith exist within us. If we cannot have faith within our self or for others how can we have faith for the divine. Thus the journey of knowing who we are begins.

    From my perspective...everything other than God is impermanent..even ourselves as we know it is impermanent and ever-changing...we are different from one moment to the next, because with the experiences that we have, they help change and alter our perspectives towards issues and reality itself. Others, naturally are always changing and impermanent as well. The only thing, from my perspective that doesn't change, is God. So, if anything deserves our full faith it would be God, for what is sure and steadfast, is reliable and deserving of faith and trust. What is impermanent and fleeting, though it can be appreciated and given some trust, surely doesn't compare with the faith and trust that can be found in God.

    I believe as a Christian, the more and more I know God, the more and more I meet Christ in prayer and meditation, the more I am changed...separated from the frailness of my humanity and being renewed and strengthened and made more and more whole in my identity I have in Christ.
    Just some thoughts...I thank you so much for sharing yours Yogasavy..I appreciate everyone who participates even if our thoughts and perspectives might differ from time to time :) I think it's important to challenge ourselves in why and what we think :)